And she kept making suggestions for how things could be better. It sure would be a lot nicer if we had these automated. And, when the Internet came along: It sure would be cool if people could access their benefits online. All that data could be put to better use if only someone were willing to tame it, and Alice was just the woman for the job. "I'm not intimidated by lots of data," she told me. She'd always been good at math and science; as a kid, if a problem stumped her, she'd go to sleep and wake up with the answer. She can see the big picture, but she also notices the details. She told me it used to piss off one of her programmers, the way she could scroll through acres of his work and glimpse the one error that would mean a whole program wouldn't work. She could do it quickly, by picking out the "nits."
Alice has been retired for many years. She stopped working in her late fifties, the result of financial planning and good retirement benefits. But she remained an early adopter of new technologies. In 2007, before anyone had an iPhone, she flew to the Macworld Expo in San Francisco to cradle the prototype in her arms. She had the first model the very day it became available, and still does with every new iPhone. And when the thing happened that set everything into motion and changed Alice's life, this was also the result of her love of new technologies. Alice being Alice, she could not leave a puzzle unsolved, no matter how difficult it was or how troubling its implications.
She could not.
* * *
Alice had long had questions about her family. Her mother, who was also named Alice, was into genealogy and kept an old family bible from the 1840s with birth, death, and marriage notations that traced back her English roots. Alice the elder had encouraged her daughter to embrace her hobby. But sometimes daughters want to do the opposite of what their mothers tell them, which is why Alice the younger refused to indulge whatever nascent interest she had in the topic until after her mom died in 1992.
Then, she dove in. Alice found her mother's line easy to document, even in the years before lots of genealogical records were online. Her mom, Alice Nisbet Collins, was descended from Irish people on one side, and on the other from Scottish and English people, some of whom had been on this side of the Atlantic as far back as colonial America. Alice was able to follow one line of her mother's ancestors back to 1500s England. Alice's father, Jim, lived for seven years after his wife died, and as Alice updated him on everything she was finding along her mother's line, she began to feel guilty. "Because my dad had nothing—he had no history," she says.
Jim Collins, the son of Irish immigrants, knew little of his parents, one of whom he barely remembered and the other not at all. His mother had died when he was a baby, and his father had given him and his older siblings away to a Catholic orphanage. For a long time, Jim didn't even know what year he was born; sending away for some vitals as a young man, he'd discovered he was a year younger than he'd thought. So, in her father's waning years, Alice dove into the project of Jim. She had just one image of him as a child, taken in 1914, shortly before he and his siblings were sent away. In the photo, curly-haired Jim sits on his father's lap, clad in a white baby dress, with his tiny sister and brother standing on either side. He is the only one smiling.
Some things Alice already knew. She knew that life in the orphanage had been difficult. She knew her dad was probably malnourished there, because a doctor later told Jim that this likely explained his small stature. She knew that Jim had left the orphanage as a young teenager, and that he'd lived some rowdy years he liked to describe as his "misspent youth," before he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the US Army Corps of Engineers, and met and married Alice's mother. She knew Jim had loved his sister, who died as a young woman, and had not been close to his brother.
Alice and her siblings sensed that Jim's Irishness and his Catholicism were important to him; they were what was left of his identity when so much else was taken away. He cooked a wicked corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, and liked to brag to one of his granddaughters about the time someone had described him as a "thoroughbred Irishman." Jim and Alice the elder had five boys and two girls, and the family went to church on Sundays, and much of the kids' schooling was at Catholic schools, and it was "important to him that the kids be raised Catholic," says Alice's sister, Gerardine Collins Wiggins, who goes by Gerry. But for all that, Jim's knowledge of his roots was shallow. He knew his dad was from County Cork. Before traveling to Ireland in 1990, Gerry had sent away for Jim's birth certificate, hoping it would help her trace his roots. But when she arrived in Ireland with the document and the few family names her dad was able to give her, the office she'd planned to consult for historical resources had closed down, and Gerry couldn't search the old records. Looking back, there were several moments like that: moments when questions were asked but answers were not forthcoming, when the paucity of information available to Jim fastened riddles into tight knots.